Aging Policy Design: Building from Anne Alstott

By Silbaugh, Katharine B. | Boston University Law Review, October 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Aging Policy Design: Building from Anne Alstott


Silbaugh, Katharine B., Boston University Law Review


In her intriguing lecture, Professor Anne Alstott reminds us that legal scholarship enjoys a unique niche between justice and policy. Political scientists and philosophers evaluate justice, while legal scholars ask where and how justice can be achieved pragmatically. Alstott calls this our comparative advantage, the merging of justice and practicality. This introduction perfectly frames the work Alstott does in evaluating Social Security and other income and savings support programs for the aging and retired population, such as tax benefits given in support of private pensions.

In her excellent work, Alstott invites us to refocus our policy conversations about the Social Security program along two dimensions. First, Alstott shows us that Social Security's design was better suited to a time of lower income inequality, where wages were more compressed over the entire economy. Because Social Security penalizes recipients for taking earlier retirements (or incentivizes later retirements), it discriminates against those with physically demanding work who need to retire earlier. It does not protect contingent workers as well as conventional workers, failing to smooth over the regular labor force entry and exit which characterizes low-wage work today. It disfavors single parents, who are more likely to be low-wage earners. On the other hand, the expensive tax benefits given to private pensions are regressive, excluding almost all low-wage workers. Many of these rules made sense when incomes were more compressed, but they were not designed to perpetuate or exacerbate disadvantage in the way they do now. The policy design itself is aging.

This is where Alstott makes the legal academic's turn from practical to philosophical. In analyzing Social Security this way, Alstott brings to the surface certain commitments that inform her recommendations. What was Social Security supposed to achieve? What has been the consensus that held it together culturally and politically? How are those principles being addressed or ignored in debates over the solvency of the Social Security system? Is the universality of Social Security-that it serves all workers, not only those at the lower end of the income scale-a pragmatic commitment to ensure the political viability of the program, or is it instead a philosophical one? Some features of the program are explicitly progressive. Are those a bow to the reality of income inequality, and are their limits a political hedge against hostility toward the program?

Alstott shows that a program may appear just when aimed at a population with broadly equal circumstances. However, it becomes clear that justice is conditioned on underlying assumptions when the underlying circumstance of common economic standing disappears. Alstott expresses the point perfectly: "The best-and only satisfying-way to gain some purchase on policy direction is to grapple with the values at stake in retirement policy." 1 Now that we have reached a point of income inequality that exposes questions of the purposes underlying the system, we need to decide whether Social Security is intended to enhance a robust Third Age for middle and upper middle class retirees, even those who are physically able to continue working, or is instead intended to ensure a dignified retirement by insuring against a retirement in poverty for anyone who, after a life of work, finds themselves threatened with that prospect. …

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